Many of us PhD students will be on the receiving end of a peer review, but it’s equally valuable to review articles ourselves. Last year, I received several rounds of helpful reviews on my first journal article and, earlier this year, I had the chance to review an article myself. In May, I also attended the Sense about Science Peer Review: the nuts & bolts workshop, sponsored by SAGE Publishing, to hear about the experiences of other early career researchers. I’ve since been reflecting on how I can carry out better reviews so that, one day, they might be as helpful as those I received for my own article. Here are three things I try to keep in mind when reviewing:
The big picture
While it is good to improve the details of a manuscript—checking that variables are defined, figures are presented clearly and references are formatted correctly—it’s harder to see the big picture and decide if the research is valuable and original. Are the experiments suitable or are there more appropriate methods in existing literature? Are the results sufficient to convince you that the author’s conclusions are true? You may not be able to address all of these questions completely but there will be other, more experienced academics reviewing the paper too, so the responsibility is not yours alone!
It’s easy to review what’s in front of you but it’s much harder to identify what’s missing: Does the introduction need to cover a broader range of topics from previous literature? Would you need more information to reproduce the author’s results? Are there additional figures or additional experiments that would strengthen the conclusions?
Are you done?
The journal editor will give you guidance on what they expect from your review, and I use this as my definition of done. I also apply David M. Schultz’s advice: once I start reverting revisions to my review, it’s probably time to stop. Finally, you might like to add your review to Publons and start tracking your own review statistics.
Expect to set aside a few days if you want to review a journal article, so don’t say yes to everything! But you can also perform internal reviews for colleagues in your department, and this is something the workshop panellists recommended too. Or you could even get involved in open reviews on The Winnower. I found that reviewing is a great way to get myself to read critically and I look forward to writing more of them in future. I strongly recommend joining one of Sense about Science’s future events to meet some brilliant students, academics, publishers and entrepreneurs, and learn about where peer review is going next.
James Shaw is a PhD student at the University of Reading, England, developing new mathematical techniques for modelling the weather and climate. Before his return to academia, James was a software developer at Shazam.